The Sunday Deep Dive

Two deadly Decembers: A tale of water and wind

Fishermen try to untangle their nets at Pulicat in Tiruvallur district. B. Jothi Ramalingam

Fishermen try to untangle their nets at Pulicat in Tiruvallur district. B. Jothi Ramalingam

After their experience over the last two years, the mention of the month of December sends a shiver down the spine of farmers and the fishing community in Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts. To many, December, once a month of celebrations — Christmas, Karthigai and, more importantly the flowering season — evokes memories of loss, melancholy and disaster.

Cyclone Vardah arrived even as the residents of these districts were attempting to erase the dark memories of the December deluge of last year. The cyclone that made landfall near the Chennai port on Monday afternoon with winds as fast as 140 kmph wreaked havoc on the lives of thousands dependent on agriculture and fishing.

On Saturday, six days after the cyclone hit Tiruvallur district, normality remained a mirage. Uprooted trees occupied the roads and dust tracks that pass for paths in the district. Broken transformers and fallen electric poles lay tangled and crops in mature banana plantations were wilting. Electricity and water supply were slowly being restored in a phased manner.

Sixty-year-old Muthu Reddy from Panchetty said he had been visiting the local village panchayat office for the past two days to seek compensation for crop damage. “I have never experienced such gusty winds. It has destroyed my fully grown paddy crops on about 14 acres. I had just repaid all the loans that I took to make up for my losses from last year’s flood. It took several days for the flood water to recede in my field. But, this year’s cyclonic storm has made it even worse. Last year, I got Rs. 800 per acre as compensation for the damaged crops but, it was just enough to meet household expenses,” said Muthu.

K. Sridhar of Manjankaranai village, Uthukottai taluk, had spent 30 per cent more on pesticides and irrigation until December to save his crops that were wilting without sufficient rains. Nearly a week after the cyclone, Sridhar said he had to wait for seven more days to see if he could harvest at least some of the crops. “I was so happy to see the revival of the golden yellow paddy crops. But then, the cyclone struck and in half a day, the grains were reduced to dust. We managed domestic water supply with diesel generator sets hired by the village panchayat. But, many farmers suffered huge crop loss,” he said.

Farmers like Sridhar were worried that it would take several months to recover from the loss. “Last year, we were able to save at least 50 per cent of the yield after the flood. But, with the lack of rainfall this year and the scarcity of water, I don’t know how I’ll manage my next crop,” he said.

Cyclone Vardah left a wide scar across the coastal areas in the three districts, and consequently, on the fishing community too.

While the damage in the fishing hamlets of north Chennai was not as immense as in the neighbouring districts, residents lived in fear as the sea inched closer to them. R. Balu, a resident of Nettukuppam, recalled the day of the cyclone when tidal waves lashed against the sea wall and covered their lanes and houses with one foot of sand. “It was a nightmare. We were worried the waves would wash away our houses. There was no drinking water for three days,” he said. On the Ennore Expressway, sand and pieces of boulders were only slowly being swept aside. Residents in the vicinity spent at least four days sweeping the sand from their homes. They still could feel the rough sand on their walls and floor, they said, adding that it even got into their food.

Six days of isolation

In Pulicat, residents of fishing hamlets had just spent their sixth day cut off from electricity and water supply. The shores of the lake resembled a war zone with boats lying all around, where they had been flung by the wind.

A portion of the makeshift road connecting the fishing villages of Thangal Perumbalam and Sathankuppam, near Pulicat lake had been washed away and electric poles lay under several feet of water. The hamlets looked more like islands. Many fishermen had suffered huge losses with their boats broken and their engines damaged. The lake is surrounded by nearly 30 fishing hamlets, including Korakuppam, Karungali, Idayankulam, Vairangkuppam and Lighthouse Kuppam. On Saturday, fishermen were still retrieving their nets from the thick vegetation around the lake.

Residents of Thangal Perumbalam charged that officials and elected representatives had ignored their area. They recalled how the wind flung 400 boats to distances of up to half a kilometre. “We haven’t had electricity or drinking water since Monday. Nearly 95 per cent of our boats have been damaged. But no official or minister has inspected our area. We’ll need a minimum of Rs. 40,000 to repair the boats and motors,” said A. Bhaskar, a fisherman. This was the worst storm in five decades, he added.

Fishermen noted that each boat cost Rs.1.5 lakh. “December has regularly been disastrous for us since the tsunami in 2004. It may take us at least three months to venture into the sea. Last year, we did not suffer so much damage to property. This is the best season for fishing. But, many of us may spend it borrowing money to repair our boats,” said R.Gnanavel, a resident of Sathankuppam.

Nearly 3,000 families had just spent a week without adequate food or water. “We don’t have much of a choice than to drink saline groundwater as no arrangements have been made to provide basic facilities. There is no connectivity. The fishermen must be compensated for the loss,” said Durai Mahendran of Thangal Perumbalam.

Residents also demanded that a long-pending proposal to construct a bridge linking Pazhaverkadu and Pasiyavaramkuppam be implemented as boat rides remained the only mode of connectivity for them.

Meanwhile, TANGEDCO staff were seen erecting new electric poles near Ponneri. Tiruvallur collector E. Sundaravalli inspected the agricultural land destroyed, including in Velliyur and Manjankaranai.

“Power supply has been restored in 90 per cent of the municipalities. We are also distributing food to affected areas. We are preparing a list of damaged crops and affected farmers to submit it to the government for compensation. Each ration card holder will get an additional one litre of kerosene,” said Ms. Sundaravalli.

Kancheepuram

It’s a long road to normality in Kancheepuram district too. The administration had taken precautions with the district divided into zones based on the damage from last year’s flood and special teams were kept ready in each zone for relief work with the necessary equipment. Nonetheless, it took up to 72 hours to remove the uprooted trees in many parts of the district.

Residents, particularly in rural areas, pitched in with the relief work as the designated teams did not arrive.

Many areas went without electricity for over two days.

Residents noted that as the overhead power supply lines ran along the thick vegetation in Kancheepuram, the cables often got damaged during the monsoon.

They said that rural pockets were left high and dry as officials focussed on speedy restoration of power to urban pockets and industrial areas.

( With inputs from

V. Venkatasubramanian )


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Printable version | Jul 4, 2022 4:46:58 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/Two-deadly-Decembers-A-tale-of-water-and-wind/article16898879.ece